Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 26 June 2013.

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Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-07108, in the name of Michael Russell, on the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Today is a good day for learners in Scotland: we have given final consideration to a bill that shows what can be achieved when the Government, the Parliament and stakeholders work together for the benefit of Scotland.

I said during the stage 1 debate that my hope was that the final iteration of the bill would be a product of partnership. I am delighted to say that that is exactly what it has turned out to be.

I thank the members of the Education and Culture Committee for their thorough consideration of the bill. In particular, I thank Stewart Maxwell for his professional and fair-minded approach in chairing its proceedings. I thank the Subordinate Legislation Committee and the Finance Committee for their valuable contributions to scrutiny of the bill, and I thank my officials and the officials of the many organisations that have worked closely with us to improve the bill at each stage.

The depth and quality of positive engagement and constructive debate between the Government and stakeholders has been excellent. That has resulted in a stronger bill that is supported by staff and students, and by colleges and universities.

It is a bill that has scope and ambition; it was never going to be possible for everyone to agree on everything. Stakeholders have argued passionately and persuasively—but usually pragmatically—for the amendments that they believed would improve the bill. Despite some distractions, this has been what I would call a mature and enlightened approach to developing legislation, and I commend all those who have contributed to it.

There have been important changes to the bill, which have improved what I believe was already a good bill. The amendments are indicative of this Government’s determination to listen, its commitment to working in partnership and its focus on producing high-quality legislation. We listened when the university sector told us that the term “management” in the governance provisions represented an unintentional threat—it came from another piece of legislation—to institutional autonomy. We listened when the college sector told us that assigned colleges needed larger boards, and we listened when staff and students told us that they should be consulted on development of the widening access agreements.

We have accepted amendments from across the chamber. We have listened because we are a Government that forms its policies—whenever we can—on the basis of consensus and agreement on what will provide the best outcome—which on this occasion is the best outcome for learners in Scotland. We listened because we understand where the knowledge and expertise on Scottish education lies. It lies in the sector, in the staff and the students who have made our post-16 education system a good system that can be better.

The fruits of our partnership are clear in the amended bill, which will be voted on shortly. It tackles head on the problem of underrepresentation of people from our deprived communities who, for too many generations, have lacked the opportunities but not the talent or the ambition to succeed.

The Victorian Liberal politician and rector of the University of Aberdeen, Mounstuart Grant Duff, once said:

“There is no investment of national energy that so quickly brings fame to a nation, as energy invested in acquiring knowledge.”

However, for decades—perhaps even for centuries—widening access to higher education has been something that we aspire to; something that we would like to achieve some day. That day is dawning because the bill establishes widening access as one of the core matters to which the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council must have regard in exercising its functions. It enshrines widening access agreements in primary legislation and it enables ministers to drive widening access forward by identifying—in consultation—the priority groups on which the efforts of institutions must focus.

The bill also makes substantial improvements to the governance of both the college and university sectors, delivering appropriate levels of assurance for the substantial investment that the state makes of about £1.6 billion every year.

In the college sector, the bill will ensure that statutory regional chairs are appointed through the public appointments process, which ends the reign of self-appointed and, sometimes, self-perpetuating boards, thereby dramatically improving governance and accountability. It also makes provision for the governing bodies of colleges and universities to have explicit regard to equalities duties in appointing new governors, which makes clear the Government’s desire that the concern about lack of diversity on governing bodies be addressed. We could do more with the full powers of a normal Parliament—and that will come.

The bill will pave the way for the re-introduction of national pay bargaining in the college sector, which is an important step towards ending what I have called the balkanisation of pay and conditions that was set in train by Michael Forsyth in the early 1990s. It protects the rest of the United Kingdom’s students from ever having to pay more for a Scottish education than they can access in fee support from their own Administrations. They would have been better served had that monetisation of higher education never started south of the border.

The bill contains innovative provisions that will allow Skills Development Scotland to share and receive information in more structured ways, which will be critical to helping young people who are at risk of dropping out of education, and it establishes the legal structures that are necessary for the proper operation of a regional college system, with all the acknowledged benefits that that will deliver. It does not tinker around the edges or skirt round the issues. It will deliver real reform for the benefit of learners and of Scotland as an essential part of a wider reform programme.

It is important to reflect on the remarkable progress that has been made since the publication of “Putting Learners at the Centre” in September 2011—just 21 months ago. That paper set out our ambitious plans to reform the college sector, to maximise its potential and to ensure that it delivers the best possible outcomes for learners and makes the best possible contribution to the Scottish economy. At the heart of the paper lay the belief that colleges of scale, distinction and influence—educational powerhouses that could transform learning opportunities for learners in their regions—are the best way to remove unnecessary competition and wasteful duplication, and thereby to allow a stronger focus on delivering better outcomes.

In those 21 months, college leaders have seized on the opportunities that the reform programme presents by setting in train an unprecedented programme of no less than 10 college mergers. Once those structural changes are complete, we will reap the full benefits of reform. We look forward to more strategic planning of provision, with a sharper focus on the needs of employers, which will simultaneously improve the life chances of learners and generate the skills that are necessary to drive forward our economy.

Regionalisation will maximise the impact of colleges and will ensure that provision always leads somewhere positive, whether that be to higher learning or to employment. It will help to create closer links between schools, colleges and universities, and will result in better-quality provision through the emergence of innovative centres of excellence in specific curriculum areas. Underpinning all that are the outcome agreements, which for the first time are making crystal clear the relationship between public funding and what institutions are expected to deliver.

The reform process also applies to the university sector. Our universities are already among the best in the world, so there is no need for a revolution, but improvement is always possible. The bill will widen access and increase accountability. The outcome agreements will provide absolute clarity on the arrangement that exists between the state and the universities, which can only help both sides.

We have no intention of moving away from our commitment to free education, and we have removed tuition fees for about 125,000 students. We have backed those students to succeed with by far the best student support package that is available anywhere in the United Kingdom. In this academic year, we have invested a further £10 million to create an additional 2,089 funded places. Those places are targeted at recruitment and retention of students from Scotland’s most deprived communities. They will increase articulation from college to university and boost skills for growth. Additional places are being provided in key sectors that are likely to have the greatest impact.

Our post-16 reforms will ensure that Scotland is truly a nation where there is opportunity for all. I urge members across the chamber to put aside the differences that have divided us during the bill’s consideration and to consider the bill on its merits and on the basis of the benefits that it will deliver for people all over Scotland.

There are no political or practical reasons for opposing the bill. It will extend access to our poorest communities. To oppose the bill would be to oppose more accountable and representative governance, and to oppose a return to national pay bargaining in the college sector. Worst of all, to oppose the bill would be to oppose the efforts of the students, staff and institutions that have worked so hard to help create the bill in its present form. I urge Parliament to come together and to unify in backing the judgment of those who know Scottish education best, who are now backing the bill.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

As a member of the Education and Culture Committee, I have been involved in scrutinising the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill from the outset. I have observed its passage at close hand, as it has gone through each stage of the legislative process, and I have to say that it has not been a pretty sight.

I will be frank. As a relatively new member of this place, the bill is the first significant piece of proposed legislation that I have observed at all stages of its passage through Parliament. I expected policy making and the legislative process to be much, much better. I was led to believe that the committee system was one of the Parliament’s great strengths. Turning ideas and policies into legislation and creating the laws of this land is the role of the committees and this chamber. As such, it is right that legislation must be properly scrutinised rather than rushed, and the rationale for introducing it must be made clear from the outset. On both those counts, the bill has failed miserably.

The reality is that this has been a shambolic botch job from the beginning. During the committee’s evidence session with the bill team, it became clear that the team that was dealing with the detail of the bill was just as unsure of the bill’s purpose and that detail as we were. I am not criticising those public servants, who were doing their jobs to the best of their ability, but am simply sympathising with their plight.

Then we had discussions with the stakeholders—the universities, the colleges, the trade unions, the students, the National Union of Students Scotland, the local authorities and the charities—almost all of whom had very serious concerns about the bill and its content. Such was the extent of our genuine concerns, which were shared with the other two Opposition parties on the committee, that we called for the bill to be withdrawn. At the time, I called the bill “a dog’s breakfast”; on reflection, I want to withdraw that charge because I now realise that that was an unfair slight on the pet food industry. In any case, the bill should have been withdrawn and brought back in a more coherent and comprehensible state. That would have been the right and responsible thing to do. Our motivation was the production of good legislation and the avoidance of bad, but—true to fashion—the cabinet secretary blustered on regardless.

There has been some improvement during the bill’s progress through the parliamentary system, although I have to say that that would not have been difficult. Had the cabinet secretary filled 42 pages with randomly selected words from the dictionary, we could have amended them into a more coherent piece of legislation with fewer amendments than we have witnessed to date. Let us be honest—it could not have been any worse. David Belsey of the Educational Institute of Scotland exemplified the confusion very eloquently when he said about the new colleges structure:

“If it’s the Government’s wish to create a nationally incoherent FE structure with a myriad of different types of colleges, governing bodies and funding mechanisms with separate regulations for each, then this Bill is the way to go about it.”

That comment was about a structure that the cabinet secretary described as “simple”. It was so simple that the sections of the bill relating to colleges required more than 110 amendments to get the bill into the state that it is in today.

Of course, most of those amendments came from the cabinet secretary himself. With every dozen amendments that he lodged, the case for withdrawal became stronger and stronger. This is a bill that had the cabinet secretary almost pleading with the committee to come forward with amendments to bail him out—and come forward we did. We lodged amendments on college regionalisation, on equal opportunities, on trade union representation, on collective bargaining, on widening access further than the government proposes, and on many other areas. What happened? All 76 amendments that were lodged by the cabinet secretary and most of the Scottish National Party amendments were agreed to, but how many of the 48 stage 2 amendments that were lodged by Labour were accepted? Surprise, surprise! Not one was accepted, and neither were the vast majority of amendments from the other Opposition parties. So much for the great unifier—so much for cabinet secretary’s commitment to working together to improve the bill. All the amendments that we lodged reflected the concerns of third-party groups and stakeholders, but all were voted down and rejected and the same thing has just happened during today’s stage 3.

This is a bad bill. Much of what is in it could have been achieved without legislation. It centralises power in the cabinet secretary’s hands—

Photo of Chic Brodie Chic Brodie Scottish National Party

I have listened to all Neil Findlay’s comments and complaints, but I think that the trade unions should understand his position on this matter. Is he actually going to vote against a bill that paves the way for national pay bargaining? If so, what has become of the Labour Party?

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

If we end up not voting for the bill, that does not mean that we are against everything in it. Mr Brodie’s argument is nonsensical. We have argued our case constructively throughout the process, and the cabinet secretary has rejected it time and again. I will take no lectures from Chic Brodie or anyone else on this matter.

As I have said, it is a bad bill. Much of what is in it could have been achieved without legislation. It centralises power, compromises autonomy and accountability, confuses college governance, has limited ambition with regard to widening access and fails to challenge gender bias in our higher education governance.

The bill was hurried and badly thought out. It sought to cover the tracks of a disastrous colleges policy that was based on cuts to courses, jobs and places and was not aimed at improving opportunities for our young people. It is a fundamentally flawed bill with the stamp of the cabinet secretary all over it.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I do not doubt for a minute that this is an important time in further and higher education—particularly given the significant challenges that our colleges and universities face—or that the Scottish Government has a duty to consider whether Government has a legislative role to play in assisting them with meeting those challenges.

That said, the scope of the bill should have been clear. The Scottish Government’s intentions, the reasons behind the bill and—more important—the evidence for why it was necessary should have been clear. Parliamentarians should have been left in no doubt at all about what the bill was designed to do, and there ought to have been a very clear signal from colleges and universities that they were receptive to the proposed changes.

There ought also to have been a very clear message that the Scottish Government, the colleges and universities and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council were largely in agreement that the bill was capable of delivering the policies that will best deliver excellence in our institutions, maintain and increase their international reputation, and respond to the economic and social needs of local economies.

From day 1, none of that has been clear. Despite the Scottish Government’s protestations that new legislation is essential, many people in the sector did not share that view; indeed, colleges and universities struggled to see the powerful evidence that would prove that case. What was it that they were not doing properly in respect of their current structures, that could not be achieved by outcome agreements or, fundamentally, that was holding back education?

I repeat what I said at stage 1. The Scottish Conservatives had some sympathy with the principles of the bill, especially the desire to widen access, but as time passed and after lengthy and tortuous committee examinations of a large amount of evidence, we increasingly came to the view that the bill was both unnecessary and open to all kinds of unintended consequences that could be detrimental to both sectors.

Apart from the presentational problems that created the need for unnecessarily complex deliberations at stage 2, major policy issues are involved. I want to look at those issues in the context of the increasingly competitive international situation for our universities and the need for an increasingly diverse and competitive college sector that is best able to serve the needs of local economies.

The good governance that exists is not in doubt; I do not believe that it ever was. If there had been compelling evidence that there were serious examples of bad governance and that they were harming education and holding back our institutions, a case might have been made for legislation. The policy memorandum did not explain any problems, and Professor von Prondzynski was at pains to say that he thought that the existing structures were “largely excellent”. That rather begged the question why the Scottish Government was so intent on such an unnecessary overhaul.

I fully respect the views of NUS Scotland and the University and College Union, and I looked carefully at the claims that they made, many of which were in the context of social justice, but I could find little in their arguments that suggested that the operations of our colleges and universities were, in fact, damaging education.

The focus on widening access should not be in our colleges and universities, although they are important; the fundamental focus should be in our schools, because if we were doing things a little bit better in them, we would not need to have any kind of positive discrimination in favour of any groups of students.

On autonomy in the sector, we should look around the world—it does not really matter where. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the World Bank and the Shanghai university tables make it plain that success is greatest in the nations in which Governments are less rather than more involved. In Finland in 2010, the state was removed from universities because it was stifling autonomy and holding back research and development, innovation and knowledge exchange.

To sum up—I will return to this issue at the end of the debate—I cannot see compelling evidence that makes the bill necessary. I ask the Government to come back yet again to explain why we should have to go through radical reform when that compelling evidence is not visible.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you very much. Before we move to the open debate, because of the number of members who wish to take part in the debate, I invite the Minister for Parliamentary Business, on behalf of the Parliamentary Bureau, to move, under rule 11.2.4, a motion to move decision time tonight to 6.25 pm.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 11.2, Decision Time begin at 6.25 pm.—[Joe FitzPatrick.]

Motion agreed to.

We turn to the open debate, with speeches of four minutes, please. I call Marco Biagi, to be followed by Neil Bibby.

Photo of Marco Biagi Marco Biagi Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am very grateful for the chance to speak in the debate, which until a few seconds ago I did not think I would have.

The bill is not the first step in widening access, nor is it the last. At 6.25 we will not be able to say “job done” and move on. The price of widening access is eternal vigilance against the social and economic inequalities that will, for as long as they exist, try to pull young people and their life paths in different directions.

The amendments that I proposed earlier built on amendments that I proposed at stage 2, and I worked on them collaboratively with the cabinet secretary. However, they also built on actions that I took further back when, as a student representative, I argued long and hard to bring down barriers to access. Indeed, they built on the steps that I took as a 17-year-old from a state school and a family with no background in higher education, when I packed my bags and went off to study at Scotland’s oldest university.

Since I have been in politics, there has been no pulling up the ladder; instead, I have always tried to give a leg-up. Abolishing tuition fees and increasing support for living costs to record levels opens the door, but as MSPs we must ensure that more is done to help students across the threshold. The lead measure in the bill for widening access is the system of targets. I believe that the targets must change behaviour in institutions so that they make their approaches and reaching out stronger, higher and deeper, because the status quo is just not an option. When the higher education sector receives more than £1.5 billion a year of ever-scarcer public money, all institutions have to recognise that widening access is something that they do and that it is not someone else’s problem.

The stark statistics of the past decade speak for themselves—usually through the Scottish index of multiple deprivation. I have been as much of a critic of the SIMD as anyone else; I do not think that it represents parts of my constituency adequately, and I believe that it is far too blunt a tool. However, I criticise the SIMD as someone who wishes to see another yardstick for measuring socioeconomic disadvantage rather than something completely different being measured.

I believe that the bill now strikes the right balance of flexibility and prescription. Universities come in all shapes and sizes, so the approach for each will need to be tailored accordingly. We need only look at the example of two institutions that are headquartered in my constituency: the Open University in Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, whose different approaches make for a striking contrast.

My successful amendment at stage 2 enshrined the participation of staff and students in the widening access agreements that will be set out with each of the institutions and which will guide the approaches. My hope was that by doing that we would ensure that the approaches would be better designed and would ultimately have a greater chance of success. It is absolutely crucial that the targets are successful.

In the same vein, I also proposed an amendment to ensure the review of widening access overall. I say to those who are sceptical about the targets that they should wait to see that review’s findings on how they have been working. Indeed, I ask of anybody who is critical of the bill’s provisions on widening access: if not this bill, what bill, and if not through targets, how? We must deliver change.

Students come in all shapes and sizes, too. We know from study after study and pilot after pilot that when students who have been separated by background, privilege and advantage all their lives sit down next to one another in the same laboratories and lecture halls, those who had been excluded rise to the challenge. That is not social engineering; that is the evidence of countless studies. I think that when the glorious diversity of our nation is reflected in the labs and lecture halls, then and only then will our job be done.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Many thanks. I now call Neil Bibby, who has four minutes, to be followed by Stewart Maxwell.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

At stage 1, along with other Opposition parties, Labour called for the bill to be delayed and redrafted because we felt that it was a bad bill that was incoherent, confused and clumsy. Unfortunately, our calls at stage 1 were not heeded and the SNP Government used its majority to carry on regardless. As a result, nearly 200 amendments were lodged at stage 2 and more than 100 amendments were lodged to be debated at stage 3 today. For the cabinet secretary’s benefit, I confirm that that means that the number of amendments has gone down, rather than up, between stage 2 and stage 3, but that is testament to our view that the bill was badly drafted. That view is backed up by the fact that the cabinet secretary has lodged more than 100 amendments of his own. Today, the bill may be less bad as a result of the Labour amendments lodged by the Labour Party and some Labour amendments lodged by Mike Russell, but many of our other suggestions were rejected during the process, and the bill is not fit to be supported.

A significant number of outstanding issues still need to be addressed. Some of those, but not all, might be dealt with through the higher and further education governance codes, which will need further scrutiny by the Parliament before their implementation by the Scottish funding council. Those issues include local representation on college boards and whether principals may participate in board meetings where board appointments and the principal’s pay are being discussed. However, the governance codes alone will not suffice because some provisions in the bill do not go far enough, some raise unanswered questions and some could have unintended consequences.

As Neil Findlay said, much that is in the bill could have been achieved without legislation. The bill centralises power in the hands of the cabinet secretary without sufficient checks—the cabinet secretary rejected a number of amendments today that would have provided those checks. The bill compromises autonomy and accountability, confuses college governance, has limited ambition and, I think, pays lip service to widening access. The bill also fails to challenge gender bias in our higher education governance arrangements by simply restating United Kingdom legislation. Worst of all, the bill will do nothing to create a single college place.

In the time remaining, I want to focus on the issue of widening access, which is an aim that I am sure we all fully support. As I have said previously, questions need to be raised about university admissions policies, but questions need to be raised about Scottish Government policy, too. The Scottish Government has not stated by how much the bill will improve access and it has not set a target or a timescale. In today’s newspapers, Michael Russell is quoted as saying that a further 16,000 young people from deprived backgrounds “could” obtain a degree. The question is not how many could do so but how many will do so. The cabinet secretary cannot tell us because all of that is still to be negotiated with the institutions.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The estimate is 16,000. Can the member explain how many would benefit if the bill did not go through? Given that you will not support the bill, how many would you achieve?

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

This is your bill, cabinet secretary—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Speak through the chair, please.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

I am asking how many young people from deprived backgrounds will get into university as a result of the bill, but there is no answer from the cabinet secretary.

When challenged on that point by the committee, the cabinet secretary said that he did not expect an overall target to be set. If the Government was serious about widening access, it would be serious about answering such questions. Officials even downplayed the possibility of financial penalties if universities did not meet targets, although the cabinet secretary has now talked up that possibility. All the bill’s aims are to be achieved without any additional budget—and without any displacement, either. If that sounds too good to be true, that is because it probably is.

As a last line of defence, Mike Russell may now desperately say that other parties are voting against widening access, but he and the SNP know all about voting against widening access. SNP members voted against widening access when they slashed college budgets in 2011 and in 2012. SNP back benchers even applauded and cheered the vote to cut college budgets, and, therefore, widening access, in February this year—that is not to mention that they voted to cut the bursaries of the poorest students in Scotland.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

This has not been a good year for Mike Russell. He misled Parliament about college budgets, he had a well-publicised and embarrassing spat with a college chair over a spy-pen and now, to cap off the year, he can take his SNP poodles with him on the bill but he cannot take with him this Parliament, which he apparently wants to disrupt.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

The committee has had an interesting journey taking the bill through. We were involved in a very intense process with a lot of difficult and, I think, interesting evidence on what is a very complex bill that deals with a number of areas, but—I will come on to this point in a moment—that is what Parliament and its committees are supposed to do. I am not surprised, but I am disappointed, by Labour’s reaction to having to engage in that difficult process.

To speak briefly as the convener of the Education and Culture Committee, I thank all the committee members for their work and effort and for their dedication to going through the bill and treating it with the seriousness that it obviously deserved. I thank all the witnesses who gave us oral evidence as well as those who submitted written evidence—they certainly deserve our thanks. I particularly thank the clerking team and the Scottish Parliament information centre for their efforts in supporting us through the process.

Throughout all the stages of the bill, some members, particularly Labour Party members, have argued that the bill is a dog’s breakfast, a shambles and badly drafted. Their argument is based on the fact that there have been so many amendments. There have been a lot of amendments, with 196 at stage 2 and 115 at stage 3. However, if that is the definition of a badly drafted bill, the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill was an utter disaster, because for it there were 492 amendments at stage 2 and 215 at stage 3. What an utter catastrophe that legislation must be, Mr Bibby and Mr Findlay. You must be absolutely ashamed of it.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

No, because I have only four minutes.

There were 255 amendments at stage 2 for the Planning etc (Scotland) Bill; 387 for the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Bill; 271 for the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill; and more than 340 for the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill. I will not go over all the rest of it. Clearly, it is your view that all those bills, which I think have become good legislation—the Parliament did a good job in analysing those bills and did its job properly—were a dog’s breakfast, a shambles and badly drafted. Those were all Labour-Lib Dem bills. I would be interested to hear how you defend your view of those bills, given the criticisms of the bill that we are considering today.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Could you speak through the chair, please, Mr Maxwell?

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

Apologies, Presiding Officer.

Frankly, it is shameful for Labour members to come to the Parliament and do somersaults by saying that they support widening access for the poorest students but will vote against the bill that will create the very process that will achieve that. It will create spaces and a future for some in our poorest communities. It is shameful that Labour members pretend that they are in favour of widening access but will vote against the processes that will achieve that. We have already scrapped tuition fees in this country. That is one part of the jigsaw, but the other parts include the student support that Marco Biagi mentioned and the parts of the bill that will widen access and allow many people to become students. I am therefore happy to support the proposals.

I am also pleased that we are introducing a tuition fee cap. Although that was not supported by some people in the university sector, I am delighted that we have put it in place. I am also delighted by the additional places that the cabinet secretary has announced in the past few months.

There has been a lot of debate, discussion and disagreement about the governance issue—Liz Smith in particular raised the matter. However, just because the current system does not have fundamental flaws, that does not mean that it cannot be improved. That is what we are doing through the bill. We are improving the system and moving to a better level of governance, which is to be welcomed.

I am delighted that, finally, we are bringing together the sector under collective pay bargaining, which is the right thing to do. That has been lacking for far too long but, again, the Labour Party will vote against it at decision time tonight.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

Like the Education and Culture Committee convener, I thank all those who gave evidence to the committee, as well as the clerks, SPICe and committee colleagues for their generally good natured forbearance through what was a difficult process, as the convener conceded.

As will have been evident from my comments earlier this afternoon, I remain unconvinced about the necessity of the bill. By working constructively through stages 2 and 3, we have made improvements in various areas and limited potential damage in others. However, once the Scottish Government had railroaded through the bill at stage 1—let us not forget that it secured the support of no party in the Parliament save the Scottish National Party—the die was cast. Even an avalanche of amendments—we have debated about 115 of them at stage 3—has been insufficient.

Despite what we have heard from the cabinet secretary and some of his colleagues, that does not mean that a vote against the bill constitutes disagreement on the broad policy objectives—it does not. I firmly believe that widening access to our universities is essential to ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to fulfil their potential. Likewise, improving the governance and accountability of our colleges and universities is an issue on which consensus reigns.

The ambition to deliver high-quality further and higher education to students of all ages in all parts of the country—and indeed beyond—is shared by members on all sides of the chamber. Although—as Stewart Maxwell said—we can point to excellence in our colleges and universities now, that does not mean that improvements are not necessary or not possible.

We appear to agree on the policy objectives, but we do not agree on the means by which to achieve them. As I said at stage 1, we as a Parliament should seek to legislate only when necessary, or when alternatives to legislation do not exist or would not deliver the outcomes that we seek to achieve.

All too often, we seem happier passing laws than checking subsequently to find out whether those laws are doing what they were intended to do. That is perhaps not surprising, as it is always comforting to point to a new piece of statute when we are asked what we, as politicians, have done to address a particular problem.

The SNP managed—by using its majority, against the wishes of every other party in the chamber—to push the bill through at stage 1, thereby ensuring that there would be legislation. However, the case for a legislative approach remains unconvincing, and the legislation seems to be more a comfort blanket for ministers than anything else.

College regionalisation, for example, is already well under way, accelerating a process that has been on-going for years. Indeed, the Education and Culture Committee approved the closure and transfer of another half-dozen colleges at its meeting yesterday.

I accept that improvements have been made to the bill since stage 1, but the case for using the legislation itself to deliver the changes has not been made. Similarly, the case for legislation on widening access seems—notwithstanding Marco Biagi’s thoughtful comments—to be more symbolic than anything else.

Progress in that area has been far too slow, and NUS Scotland has argued that

“it is important to create a defined link between the public funding universities receive, and the public benefit they provide.”

That may be the case, but it is not a justification for legislation. The minimum income guarantee will help, and fair access agreements are now in place. Such agreements can, along with the funding levers that ministers have at their disposal, help to ensure that access becomes core to the mission of our universities.

I welcome the recognition that a broader definition is needed for underrepresented groups, including those with learning difficulties, but I believe that fair access agreements that are linked to funding carrots and sticks could achieve the same ends.

I entirely accept that improvements are needed to governance. In areas such as staff and student representation and the need for greater diversity, transparency and accountability, the way in which our universities and colleges are run is ripe for reform. Again, however, I question whether that requires to be underpinned by legislation. Having robust codes of good governance—adherence to which would be mandatory for securing public funding—seems as effective an approach and would run less of a risk of compromising the responsible autonomy that is the hallmark of the world’s most successful universities.

Our colleges and universities are critical to our success as a nation—economically, socially and culturally. It is right that we focus on helping to ensure that they are well run, accountable and diverse in their make-up in every sense, and that they provide opportunities for all to fulfil their potential. Those are shared ambitions. I regret that the vote that took place at stage 1 set us on a path that prioritised ministers’ desire to pass a bill over a serious rethink about how best to achieve those shared ambitions. That is indeed regrettable.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Throughout the bill process, from the very early days, I have listened carefully to the Scottish Government, to my colleagues in the Opposition parties and to the witnesses from the colleges and universities. I hope that I have been assiduous in considering each aspect of the bill.

At the start of the stage 1 process, the Scottish Government asked us to judge the bill and examine its context on the basis of three specific criteria: whether it would provide better support for jobs and economic growth; whether it would improve the life chances of students; and whether it would fundamentally change the provision of skills so as to link learning to demand.

The Scottish Conservatives took the Scottish Government at its word, and throughout the process we have listened carefully to a wide range of stakeholders—across the university and college sectors and in the wider economy—to find out how they view the bill with regard to those principles.

I commend the convener of the Education and Culture Committee on being very good and fair in convening meetings during what has been a tortuous bill process. As he has said, there has been no particular objection to many of the general policy objectives, but there has been a great deal of concern about the detail.

I share the concern of the Labour and Liberal parties about whether legislation is in fact required, particularly on various aspects of widening access and governance. It is very clear that we all want to see the same ambitions, but I have never been persuaded—and neither has the Conservative Party at large—that the evidence points to legislation being essential.

We heard the cabinet secretary argue time and again that there has been far too much duplication of courses in our colleges and that the 1992 legislation, which the Conservatives brought in, has prevented the college sector from moving forward. However, that legislation allowed colleges to increase their flexibility and respond better to the needs of their local area. I find it difficult to see why the cabinet secretary thinks that the 1992 legislation has been so detrimental. Indeed, it is often thrown up by many of the colleges as something that has given them extra autonomy and flexibility.

I repeat that the Scottish Conservatives are firmly in favour of widening access, but we have a grave difference of opinion with the Scottish Government about where that focus should be. We believe that the focus should be on schools. I noticed two weeks ago that Ferdinand von Prondzynski said that we should be starting in nursery schools when it comes to widening access, and I entirely agree with that. We would not be in this situation if we were able to ensure that everyone in schools had a much fairer choice in terms of success. Raising aspirations is crucial, particularly in schools in which there has not been a tradition of going to college or university, and that is where the policy focus should be. It is, in many respects, far too late by the time we come to tertiary education.

The fact that the Opposition parties oppose various elements of the bill is one thing, but the fact that the further and higher education sectors have raised significant concerns about its drafting and the way in which it has progressed is quite another. The points that have been put to us by the colleges and universities have formed our opinion.

This has been a difficult process. I hope that we cannot be accused of taking it lightly. I hope that we have been serious about looking at the aims of the bill but, as far as I can see, there is no compelling evidence for why the bill is necessary. On that basis, the Scottish Conservatives will not support it at decision time.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

There can be no doubt that the wellbeing of universities and colleges is significant to Parliament and everyone in Scotland. The better our colleges and universities operate and deliver, the better it is for Scotland. It is unfortunate therefore that, in a bill of such significance, we have reached this situation. It is a wasted opportunity for the Parliament to come together and deliver something that would make a lasting and significant difference to our colleges and universities.

The cabinet secretary said that it was the Government’s intention to listen, but I do not see any evidence of that, unless he meant that he was going to listen to himself and to his own party. There was certainly no evidence of listening to anything that any of the Opposition parties proposed in the Education and Culture Committee. It is unusual for such a significant bill to get to stage 3 in Parliament and not have the support of other parties. I hope that the cabinet secretary will reflect on that and ask why.

The cabinet secretary said that there was no political reason to oppose the bill, and he is absolutely right. Scottish Labour is not opposing the bill for political reasons but because it was badly conceived, badly constructed and badly designed, and it has been badly delivered in the process. This has been a wasted opportunity.

There is a range of areas in which we think that the opportunity has been wasted. Jenny Marra made the points about gender equality eloquently. I cannot for the life of me fathom why the Government could not reach out and grasp the opportunity given by Scottish Labour—by Jenny Marra—to do something about what we all recognise is completely and utterly unacceptable.

It is disappointing that the Scottish Government refused to take the opportunity to go further in its attempts to widen access. I do not just mean by doing more about the number of young people from disadvantaged communities who go to university. I concur with Liz Smith about the widening access debate starting in the early years and coming through school, so that our young people, irrespective of their background, are ready, able and confident to go to university because of their abilities and not their financial circumstances. That investment needs to be made, and yet the evidence, in council area after council area throughout Scotland, is that councils, irrespective of their political leadership, are struggling to deliver essential education and services in the early years.

If, as he said, the cabinet secretary thinks that Scotland has the best student support package, why does the Government persist in financially penalising poorer students by cutting grants in order to generate funds to give wealthier students access to cheap loans? We should not penalise the poor to help the better-off. That is a perverse notion. It is something that the cabinet secretary could have addressed in order to widen access, and he refused to do so.

There is a trend in the bill that is deeply worrying and indeed a bit scary. I remember the debates before the Parliament was created in which some people in Scotland feared that power, control and services would begin to be centralised in the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. They were told that that would not happen. Yet, since 2007, we have seen a clear trend towards the centralisation of power under the control of ministers. The bill does that in spades: we are seeing more centralisation, more ministerial influence and more ministerial control. That is the wrong way to take things forward.

The cabinet secretary described the bill as real reform. Does he believe that the chaos that has been caused in our further education sector is positive reform? No one outside Parliament sees what is happening as positive. Staff and students are worried and we are seeing people at each other’s throats at a local level, where they see services and courses beginning to drift away. Others are scared to speak out because they fear for their positions, particularly with the mergers. All the while, more and more power is coming into the hands of the minister. That is the wrong way to go. It is creeping centralisation and it is undermining a long tradition of decentralisation in Scotland. We are going in the wrong direction.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

I call Michael Russell to wind up the debate. Cabinet secretary, you have a maximum of eight minutes.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Two weeks ago, I had a visit in my constituency office from the former MSP for Argyll and Bute, Jim Mather. Those in the chamber who know him will know that he would recommend a number of books to me. He recommended a management book that was, he said, particularly relevant because it addressed the issues that one finds in public life when new ideas are promulgated. The book outlines four types of opposition. The first type of opposition is to say, “We don’t need it—yet.” The second type of opposition is to say, “We don’t need it—period.” The third type of opposition is to ask endless questions of detail to stop it from happening. If all that fails, the fourth type of opposition is character assassination. We have seen all of that. I want to cut through all that today—

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No. I am sorry, but I would like to make some progress. I have only eight minutes.

It is essential that we recognise what the bill achieves and address the consequences for those parties that will not support the things that are being established today. The bill will deliver stronger widening-access provisions, establishing widening access at the heart of what the Scottish funding council and the institutions do.

Secondly, the bill will create structures for a reformed college sector that will deliver better outcomes for learners and businesses. That is accepted across the sector. If people vote against the bill, they will be voting against better outcomes for learners and businesses.

The bill will pave the way for national pay bargaining in the college sector. Anyone who votes against the bill will be voting against that.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, thank you. I would like to make some progress.

The bill will address the lack of equality on the governing bodies of our post-16 institutions. It will do that to the limit of the Scottish Parliament’s powers. Anyone who votes against the bill will be voting against progress on gender issues.

The bill will improve governance across both sectors. There is no doubt about that. It takes on board the recommendations of two independent reviews—I stress that the reviews were independent.

The bill puts in place mechanisms to prevent young people from dropping out of education. It also does things for student associations.

There is the shopping list. If the bill does not pass, those things will not come to pass. That is important.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I would like to make some progress, Presiding Officer.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I do not recognise any ideological objections from Labour at all; I simply recognise oppositionalism. However, I recognise the Tories’ ideological objections to what we are trying to achieve in this bill, so I want to address one or two of the points that Liz Smith raised.

I was surprised when Liz Smith defined the way in which reform should come about. She said that we would have to ensure that a sector that is being reformed is in agreement. I will use two words to question that point: Michael Gove. It is simply not true that, when reform is under way, everyone will agree with it. However, I am glad about the wider level of support that we have across the sector, and I will quote three people’s views on the bill.

Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, the principal of the University of Edinburgh, said:

“We are very supportive of the whole bill in terms of intentions with regards to widening participation, greater efficiency of the sector and greater accountability”.

John Henderson, the chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said:

“Colleges support the principle of reform and there is much in this Bill to be welcomed.”

Robin Parker, of the National Union of Students Scotland, said:

“The legislation must happen.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 19 February 2013; c 1985.]

The impression that has been given—intentionally or unintentionally—that nobody supports the bill, and that it has simply been dreamed up and put on the statute book, is incorrect. The bill is supported across the sector. It is also the result of a lengthy and detailed process.

Again, someone who was observing this debate having just arrived from Mars might think that no work at all had been done to get the sector onside and involve it in the process.

Stewart Maxwell was right to say that the bill is controversial and complex. It requires some hard work from members to understand how the sector will change and improve and to participate in the improvement of the bill. We have seen that from most sides of the chamber. However, what we did was publish a set of intentions around putting learners at the centre. Then, there were two independent reviews of governance—not one, but two—which were wide ranging and had representation from across the sector. The reviews were unanimous in their recommendations, with one exception. Following that, we consulted widely. Then we published a bill. Then, at stage 1, considerable evidence was taken. After that, there was a process of amendment—there was not a particularly detailed set of amendments in terms of numbers, but the process took place. We listened at stage 1 and stage 2 and, when we came to stage 3, there were further improvements to the bill.

Again, someone who had just arrived from Mars might believe that the Government lodged thousands of amendments to burden the poor members of the committee. However, fewer than half of the stage 2 amendments—76 out of 191—were lodged by the Government. None of those represented a major policy shift, but they were developed to improve the bill for the benefit of learners.

Similarly, out of 120 stage 3 amendments, 58 came from the Government and, again, they were amendments that resulted from our having listened to the sector. Indeed, 17 of those amendments were the result of Labour members making points in the committee with which I agreed. I would have been happy to accept improved amendments from Labour had they come forward, but none did. On national pay bargaining, the same amendments that could not have effect and the same amendments that would not have achieved the effect were simply slapped down again without discussion. That is not the hard work that we need to improve a bill.

Fortunately, the sector has behaved differently. It has worked closely with the Government and some members of the committee—Mr McArthur, for example, worked on the University of the Highlands and Islands amendments along with the Highlands and Islands MSPs to do something that was important—and we ended up with a much-improved bill.

That is the purpose of legislation. The much-vaunted system that we have in the Parliament improves legislation as we go along. If some members do not understand that and are not prepared to put the effort in, that is tough, because the job of legislating is to put the effort in. Now we have a piece of legislation that works for Scotland. [Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Order. The cabinet secretary is closing.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The bill will improve the situation for learners in Scotland. Therefore, I go back to the point with which I opened. If anybody in the chamber votes against the bill, here is what they are voting against. They are voting against widening access—it is not possible to support widening access and vote against it. They are voting against a reformed college sector delivering better outcomes for learners and businesses. They are voting against national pay bargaining in the college sector. They are voting against measures to improve gender balance on the boards of the governing bodies of colleges and universities. [Laughter.]

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Ah, I wondered how long it would be before Mr Findlay started to laugh at the things that need to happen in Scotland. He would vote against governance across both sectors and mechanisms to help the young people of Scotland.

That is what members vote against if they vote against the bill. I quote Robin Parker again: “The legislation must happen.” That is what students are saying. I hope that the Parliament is listening.